Is it okay to love Jesus but dread Christmas?
The store decorations have been up for a month now. Family calendars are bursting with all kinds of commitments. Traffic around the malls is already maddening and hasn’t even reached its peak.
But I’m not talking about that.
Even if all of the Christmas preparation was swept aside and I was able to enjoy all of the benefits of the holiday free from its crushing expectations, I’m not looking forward to Christmas this year.
Why? This year and going forward, a place at our family’s celebration table is going unoccupied.
In the early morning a few days before Thanksgiving, I was dozing at my father’s bedside and realized that I didn’t hear his breathing any more. He had been under the able care of hospice for a couple of weeks and had quietly slipped away. Sixteen years of taking care of aging parents was at an end.
And in the same moment, a hole opened up in my life and heart that that can never be filled by anything that this earth can offer. And even as I write this, I am again aware of the dull ache in my gut.
I really miss my dad.
I love the way he so faithfully served our family by taking an hourlong commute to his job in Detroit from our farm near Ann Arbor so that we could enjoy a life in our community of four generations.
I love the character he modeled when my mom had her stroke. He dropped his plans for a well-deserved retirement. I learned more about the sacrificial love of Christ by the way he tenderly cared for her.
I love the way he tried his best to stay engaged after we sold the farm earlier this year to move him closer. Even when the days exhausted him at 87 years old, he still found the energy to ask my daughter how her day went when we came by for an after-school visit over vanilla pudding.
I count myself lucky to have known him – and it makes the letting go that much tougher.
I know I’m not the only one struggling with grief or loss this Christmas. I’ve officiated a lot of funerals for a lot of families at this time of year; but no matter what season it happens, the pain of loss seems more pronounced when we have a thousand media streams telling us to paint on a smile of Christmas cheer and go buy something.
So I – and all of us in the strange and dubious fellowship of shared loss – have a difficult choice to make:
We can toughen up and harden our hearts to the pain – pack our emotional baggage and move to the isle of invulnerability where nothing and no one can hurt us again.
We can paint on that Christmas smile, all the while numbing our pain with a little too much wine, the latest iPhone or the many other distractions life in America can offer us.
Both are alluring options, but in my experience (personal and otherwise), both are ultimately ineffective and damaging to our life with God and the relationships around us. I humbly want to offer a third counterintuitive and countercultural option:
What if we were to keep our hearts vulnerable and soft so that the Kingdom of God can come near?
Really. It’s ALL OVER the Bible. Here are just a couple of the promises I’ve been clinging to lately:
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34:14
Yep. That’s me. And the Lord is near.
In fact, this whole season of Advent (which also means “arrival”) celebrates the “mission trip” that God took to be with us when we needed it the most:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). – Matthew 1:22-23
The unexpected truth of it is this: the times when God feels farthest away are when he is actually nearest.
So here are a few things I’m doing practically to take care of myself in this season:
I’m practicing honesty. Sometimes I feel like crying – hard. So I excuse myself and do that. The venom inside of me has to get out and crying is one of the ways it happens. But a lot of the time I don’t feel like crying, and so I don’t. I’m even allowing myself to chuckle at a funny memory of that good old guy. In the end, I am owning every tear but not forcing any tear.
I’m saying “No” a little more and allowing myself some time to heal. After doing this a couple of times with the passing of my mom and older brother, I had the good sense to let friends and co-workers know that I’m throttling back on my commitments a bit. There are things I’m still embracing and pursuing, but my calendar is a little clearer to divert that energy toward the surprisingly demanding work of rest and silence.
I’m practicing intentional gratitude. This can be tricky, and sometimes I really have to dig for it. But even in the pain and ugliness of the situation, I can pick out and be grateful for the experiences I never would have had if this man hadn’t been in my life. And I understand that some don’t have dads they can be proud of; but I’ve given my life to the proposition that even from that emptiness, Jesus offers a way forward into a future of meaning and hope.
I’m pursuing life-giving community. These are the people who have gone before me in my grief who will let me be where I am, but by their presence and experience-seasoned words gently remind me of God’s ultimate goodness.
Even when those we love cannot remain with us, there is a greater Love that does. And for those of us sharing in that time of loss, I bid you a restful and healing Christmas season.
Surviving the Holidays
The emotions that the holidays stir in a person who has experienced a loss are overwhelming. To help ease the emotional pain, grief and stress, we are offering a seminar of “Surviving the Holidays.” Happening at 7 p.m. on Dec. 13 at the Troy, Orion and Clinton Township campuses, you’ll learn:
– How to deal with the many emotions you face during the holidays
– What to do about traditions and other coming changes
– Helpful tips for surviving social events
– How to discover hope for your future